October 2011

Theatrical screenings

While it is still the hope of every filmmaker we know that their film will be seen on the big screen, very often they do not have a clear idea of the work and money involved in making this happen. They also do not have an idea of the kind of revenue (or lack thereof) these screenings will generate. There are a few passages in the book that address this topic and the many ways filmmakers are screening their films.

This first piece is from Ben Niles, director of Note by Note. After Ben had taken the film back from his sales agent, he set about looking for a theatrical distributor.

I was trying to find an indie distributor and I was getting pretty frustrated because these people that I was told were indie distributors still wanted me to spend $50,000 to$75,000. They wanted me to get a 35mm print; they wanted a ton of money for P and A, and I said, ‘I guess I’m missing it, because that’s not indie to me.’

Ben met with Jim Brown from Argot Pictures and they agreed on a monthly fee for Jim to book the film theatrically. The successful Film Forum screening was crucial, because theaters across the US look to NY box office figures to see what might be good to book locally.

Jim and I worked out a guaranteed three-month deal to see if he could get any traction for the film, and then we would step back and renegotiate if everybody was happy. Well, we renegotiated like within six weeks. The phone wasringing off the hook.

Within the first year, they had 50 theatrical and 20 alternative theatrical dates grossing $100,000.

Since the New York theatrical was done at Film Forum, who provided the publicist, Ben was able to keep the costs of the theatrical release very low. He spent a total of $4,500 on publicists in LA, SF and Chicago, which Ben thought was very effective and a wise spend. He also spent $3,000 on print ads, (which Ben considered a waste of money [but is often required by the theaters]), and $500 on dubs.

Case study The Best and the Brightest had an interesting theatrical release partly through Emerging Pictures.  Jon Reiss explains Emerging’s model

Emerging Pictures has a relationshipwith about 100 theaters nationwide, in which they can deliver a digital “print/file” for no cost. In other words, they have eliminated all print costs (even BluRay) and created a network of theaters that are connected to audiences. In addition, if you have a live event after your screening, Emerging can net-cast this to any of their member theaters. All this costs is $1000 encoding fee and 70% of the box office; the filmmaker keeps the other 30%.

Here is more about Best’s theatrical screenings:

“New Video [the film’s DVD distributor] and Weiser [the film’s producer] engaged Marian Koltai-Levine of PMK to create a theatrical release for the film in New York and Los Angeles (Miami also came on board as part of Baldwin’s sneak previews) for a fee of $50,000. New Video put up 50% of this fee,which included around $20,000 for print ads. The 50K also included the four-wall fees for the theaters in NY and Los Angeles. It made sense for Best to spend this money because they had stars in the film. Hence, they would get reviews as well as other forms of national press, such as Neil Patrick Harris on Conan O’Brien, Amy Sedaris on Letterman and John Hodgman on The Daily Show, among others. Total gross for opening weekend—$4,771—hence the per screen average for NY/LA: $2,385.50. Weiser told us, ‘There was no expectation of making our money back from the theatrical itself, but we hope it will all impact the bottom line DVD/VOD/digital sales.’ Koltai-Levine was also able to get Emerging Pictures on board to continue the theatrical into about 30 to 40 additional cities.”

The chapter on Adventures of Power demonstrates the work, expense and risk of theatrical screenings.

“Ari hired Dylan Marchetti’s company Variance Films to do the theatrical release and he worked with Range Life on the event/semi-theatrical.

Did you do traditional theatrical, and if so, how much time did you spend to set it up?

Ari: I spent about four months setting it up.

How much did you spend on the theatrical?

Ari: $150,000. [he thinks that $20,000 went to prints.]

How long was the theatrical run?

Ari: About six weeks.

How many cities were full-week runs?

Ari: Eight.

In how many cities did you have alternative theatrical screenings?

Ari: 15.

According to Box Office Mojo, the film grossed just $17, 419. Ari still feels like it helped by generating publicity and awareness for the film for the ancillaries.

How much did you spend to book your alternative theatrical release?

Ari: $1,500.

How much did you gross on your alternative theatrical release?

Ari: $800.

To read more in depth about how each case booked their screenings, worked to promote them and how they felt about the service providers they hired to work with, read Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul.

Our Los Angeles book launch party is tomorrow night at the Young Library at UCLA. If you plan to attend, please RSVP. There will be printed books for sale autographed by the authors as well as food and drink.

As always, you can  follow us on Facebook where we post regularly and read our posts on Twitter under the hashtag #syfnotsys.

 

 

The Porno Clause and Other Legal Tips Filmmakers May Not Know, But Will Wish They Had

Legal counsel, Cherie Song, wrote this post originally for indieWire and we thought it was so good (especially the title!), we’ll repost it here.

Full disclosure: There’s no end to the legal rigamarole that accompanies any film’s distribution and this article will not make it any shorter. However, the only thing that’s worse than paying legal fees is wishing that you had. So with that in mind, here are four items that could be overlooked on your legal checklist and absolutely should not be.

The Porno Clause
Otherwise known as section 2257 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, this is the law that was enacted not long after the Traci Lords scandal in 1986, which very nearly took down the adult industry altogether. And while odds are none of your actors actually have sex on camera, your film might contain a simulated sex scene. And if it does, you may be subject to the record keeping and labeling requirements of Section 2257A.

Section 2257A is an extension of the enforcement guidelines for the Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act of 1988. In short, that law requires producers of visual depictions of actual sexually explicit conduct to 1) maintain records to ensure that actors are not minors and 2) to label materials containing such depictions with the location of the records. In 2006, it was broadened to include depictions of simulated sexually explicit conduct with the addition of Section 2257A. Either way, failure to comply is a criminal offense.

There’s an exception if you’ve filed what’s called a “safe harbor” exemption letter with the U.S. Attorney General certifying, among other things, that you collect and maintain IDs of all performers.  As “secondary producers,” distributors also may be required to maintain records that identify the filmmaker for any depiction and that verify the filmmaker checked the legal age of performers prior to the date of original production, so a growing number of distributors are requiring safe harbor letters from filmmakers to minimize liability.

The Out Clause
You’re sick and tired of waiting for the company to live up to its promises. You’ve had it and want out. Where do you go from here?

In the context of a distribution deal, you want your contract to contain a clearly written default/termination provision that allows you an “out” if the distributor fails to do something material—say, pay you overages or send you statements. In addition, you should have an “out” if the distributor files for bankruptcy or assigns the contract to an unaffiliated third party who may or may not be able to live up to the promises made by the original distributor.

Make sure your rights automatically revert to you upon termination, subject to any presold territories. Then you can take your film and try to monetize it in any unsold territories. That’s not an easy task, but it’s better than the alternative of being stuck in a bad relationship.

The Trigger Clause
If you’re getting a minimum guarantee (usually paid out in installments), your contract should contain clearly defined triggering events for payments and a time period within which they should be made. If distributor fails to pay the full minimum guarantee within a certain time period, you should have the right to terminate the agreement, get any materials in distributor’s possession returned to you and all rights granted to the distributor should revert to you so you can take your film elsewhere.

The Clause Clause
Otherwise known as defining your terms. Oddly enough, it’s normal (as in ordinary) for distribution contracts to contain terms that are undefined or defined only “in accordance with industry standards.” Some filmmakers prefer Independent Film and Television Alliance definitions because they’re believed to be more “fair” than those contained in some distributors’ contracts.

In a way, it doesn’t matter what your preference is—only that you have one. Identifying terms that demand definition, and understanding them to your satisfaction, can make the difference between legal protection and giving your rights away.

For example (and this is only one of many), if you want to stream your film on your website or social networking pages, make sure the definition of “Digital Rights” in your contract excludes this right. A reservation clause might read: “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained herein, Licensor shall retain the right to [list reserved rights].” In all cases, you should have a qualified distribution attorney review the contract to make sure it reflects the deal you made.

Cherie Y. Song is an entertainment attorney and legal counsel for The Film Collaborative.

Our Los Angeles book launch takes place at the Young Library at UCLA this Friday October 28. If you plan to attend, please RSVP. There will be printed books for sale autographed by the authors as well as food and drink.

As always, you can  follow us on Facebook where we post regularly and read our posts on Twitter under the hashtag #syfnotsys.

 

MICRO-ANALYSIS: Looking at the Micro-Budget feature in the contemporary distribution landscape

By Jeffrey Winter

At some point in our formative childhood years, we learn that “progress” is the process of getting “bigger and better.” We come to understand that $100 dollar in 1900 is roughly the equivalent of $2,680 today (http://bit.ly/aeZM3U). What we used to call a millionaire we now reserve for billionaires. We assume that the passage of time means things get easier, more rational, and yes, “better” overall.

As adults we learn that “progress” is not nearly as simple as all that. In fact, — we backslide, we re-invent, we encounter new technologies that change everything. When I first got into this business full-time, a $1 million movie was considered a throwaway, what we flippantly termed  “straight to video” or a network “movie-of-the-week.” Yet for the most part, those films did very well financially, and were the cornerstone of a rich, powerful, and largely insular and undemocratic Hollywood.

Now that time seems like a distant dream (or nightmare, depending on your perspective). Nowadays, if your average indie filmmaker says they spent $1 million on their film, people look at them like they are utterly decadent and out-of-touch (unless they have movie stars in their film).  There are numerous factors that have contributed to this of course, including… 1) the democratization of digital filmmaking technology and the explosion in the number of independent films being made as a result; 2) the radical fracturing of the film consumption habits of the public given their thousands of channels and ubiquitous access to on-demand content; and 3) the crash of 2008 and the predominantly backsliding global (especially US and European) economy that offers us no reason to think that things will get any better any time soon.

And so, we have entered the era of the Micro-Budget film, which Microfilmmaker Magazine defines as a “less than a 30,000 budget,” and which they claim amounts to 80 – 90% of all independent films today (http://bit.ly/o1oD5h). For the purposes of framing this discussion, I am going to be a bit more generous as to what we can call “Micro-Budget” ….I’ll go to approximately $100,000 for sake of argument. (Note: prior to 2008, I was preaching to filmmakers that $250,000 was still micro-budget, but my how things have changed).

Why $100,000 today you ask? Because at $100,000 or less, one can easily wrap one’s brain around how a no-stars indie film can achieve financial recoupment by simply plumbing the basic mechanics of contemporary film distribution, from film festivals straight through to digital distribution and all the steps in-between. Therefore, it falls more in line with the model we previously called “straight-to-video,” (i.e. not requiring profits from theatrical distribution), albeit much more complicated and work-intensive than it used to be.

This model of the contemporary Micro-Budget film doesn’t necessarily require a big Sundance premiere or major sales miracle, but I am not making the claim that it is therefore easy by any means. First of all, it generally requires that the film be good if not great, which certainly wasn’t the case in the straight-to-video era (when so much less product was available than it is today, such that mediocre and even god-awful content was still most of what was available to us as a film-viewing public). In addition, today’s marketplace requires incredible dedication, marketing savvy, and brute hard work to get the film available, noticed, marketed, and consumed….which filmmakers can either choose to do themselves, or find like-minded partners, consultants, and platforms to help them achieve their goals.

As the technology has evolved, today’s filmmaker are no longer constrained by “gatekeeper” companies in their ability to get their films available for public consumption… there are endless number of good ways now to get your film available to millions to be seen. Now the challenge is to let people know that your film actually exists, to find an audience you can connect to, and to monetize that connection.

As a mini-case study of this phenomenon, I’ll refer here to a micro-budget film that we, The Film Collaborative, shepherded to marketplace in 2010 called THE OWLS, directed by Cheryl Dunye (OWLS in this case is an acronym for “Older, Wiser, Lesbians”). The film, produced for under $25,000, achieved a significant film festival world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, as part of the Panorama section.

As a lesbian-themed feature with major festival pedigree, it attracted significant attention from gay & lesbian film festivals all around the world…nearly all of whom paid screening fees to show the film. While there were no “movie stars” per se…it featured a cast that was very well known in lesbian communities all over the world. It sold to small queer distribution companies in all major territories, and achieved favorable DVD and digital distribution arrangements in the U.S.

And voilà, the math added up and the budget was easily recouped through the basic steps of niche, micro-budget distribution.

This is the blueprint of the contemporary micro-budget feature, although of course it isn’t always as easy to identify your core audience. Most of you will have to work harder at doing so….but that doesn’t mean it isn’t doable for many. The key factor here is to “know your audience,” and to remember that in a fractured distribution audience, in fact, “niche is king.”

I’ll close here by saying that one of the core mistakes of micro-budget features today is to think that by finishing a film for a remarkably low production budget means you are “safe” because they money will inevitably flow back to you. That is utter folly. First of all, and most importantly, your film will need to be good. Long since gone are the days that a mediocre film will attract an audience already glutted by available content.

Even more critically, you’ll need to find ways – both creative and financial – for alerting people to the fact that your film exists and that it demands to be seen. In a standard Hollywood studio model, there now exists at least a one-to-one model for matching marketing dollars to budget dollars….meaning that is entirely understood that a $100 million studio flick will require a minimum of $100 million dollars in P&A to market it. And yet this concept is entirely overlooked in the indie space…. I have yet to hear of an indie filmmaker who made a $50,000 film and also spent $50,000 to market and promote it. Imagine all the facebook ads, social media consultants and interns, marketing promotions, grassroots organizations, special event screenings, reviews and blogosphere promotions you could generate if you actually spent as much money on your distribution and marketing as you did on the production of your film.

I realize that most of us are still a long way away from being able to budget the marketing of our films into the actual production process…I realize that most of us can’t set $50,000 aside for our $50,000 micro-budget films. But I would argue that ultimately we will have no choice,  as marketing emerges as king above all other factors. If the means of distribution will democratize, then only the most savvy of marketers will survive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The importance of curatorship and audience connection for cinemas

In Jon Reiss’ case study film The Best and The Brightest, there is a section that addresses the need for cinemas to be in direct contact with their audiences for all in the industry to continue to prosper.

In today’s marketplace of mall multiplexes geared more for reserving 5 screens for the latest Harry Potter film and offering giant tubs of popcorn and soda than true connection to film, most cinemas are owned by corporations and about as far removed from audience members as one can get. The most a patron may come in contact with theater staff is when a ticket is purchased and torn or as the credits roll when staff brings in the brooms to clean up before the next show. We’d like to think that the small arthouse theater is more attuned to those who frequent their screenings, but this often isn’t the case either. The group behind The Best and The Brightest learned this first hand. Below is an excerpt from this section of the book.

“Outside of some Facebook ads, a few small banner ads and some local event listings, they did not spend any money on media buys. Hence, they felt they could book into an indie theater, do a great grassroots campaign, and they would sell out.

However, they discovered that this was not the formula. In Columbus, OH and Houston, TX they booked into well-respected independent theaters and had local teams marketing the film. In Columbus, the theater was across the street from a university; it was the main art-house in town with multiple theaters. In Houston, they had more “demand it” requests than in any other city.  However, both of these cities bombed surprisingly.

From this Baldwin learned that the advance team helped, the online social media helped, but what was essential was that the theater needed to be connected to its own audience. To that end, they had the most consistent success with membership-oriented theaters whose patrons trusted the curatorial taste of the theater.

Weiser: Traditional theatrical is not connecting with audiences.What Declan did made sense because each of the theaters we booked into has a connection with their audience. These audiences trusted “their” theater—and if the theater programmed it—they would come.

A surprising note on Best’s Demand-It tool on their site: Baldwin found that there was no correlation between the number of people who “demanded” a screening in their city and box-office (as exemplified by the Houston screening). However, the surprise benefit of the Demand-It tool was that it was a good source for local marketing volunteers. Baldwin successfully reached out to the people who had requested a screening in their town and persuaded them to be the local outreach people for those screenings.

After Houston and Columbus, they were much more selective about the theaters that they booked. They had to be member oriented theaters. To this point, their success allowed them to get more bookings and better terms from theaters. These deals were either 50/50 splits or 70/30 after expenses (70 going to Best). They ended up making between $600 and $2,600 per screening, which is pretty good for a one-night event, especially considering that their per-screen average for their conventional theatrical was $2,385.50 for a week-long run.

They also discovered that the theaters knew what nights and times their membership would come out—either 7pm on Wednesday night or 8pm on a Thursday—it varied city-to-city and was very specific.”

Read about why Best decided to do week long conventional theatrical screenings in select cities as well in the book Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul now available in digital and print editions. Visit our store for details and pricing. As always, you can  follow us on Facebook where we post regularly and read our posts on Twitter under the hashtag #syfnotsys.

 

Basic principles of marketing and distribution for independent film

Co authors Jon Reiss, Sheri Candler and Orly Ravid just finished up a weeklong discussion on the D Word site about distribution and marketing for filmmakers in association with the release of  Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul. Doug Block, who was our moderator and co runs the site, asked us to summarize our thoughts on the subject and it seemed to create a pithy little post encapsulating some of Jon’s core beliefs when it comes to helping filmmakers release their films. They are included here along with a few closing thoughts from Sheri. We encourage you (especially if you are a doc filmmaker) to join D-Word and to check out the Selling Your Film topic which is now archived.

Doug Block: As this is our last day, I’m wondering what might be some main points you’d like filmmakers to come away with regarding the way they should be approaching their marketing and distribution.

Jon’s Summary:

Distribution and marketing of a film should start as early as possible – and be integrated into the filmmaking process as much as possible. Doing this will benefit the film and make the release more successful and make your life easier.

Each film needs its own distribution and marketing plan – unique to that film. The distribution and marketing for any one film will depend on several factors:

1. Goals of the filmmaking team (all should be on the same page).

2. The film itself – what is appropriate for this film.

3. The audience of that film:

Who is the audience (be specific)?
Where does the audience learn about films?
How does that audience consume films?

Connect with your audiences early and often.

Only talk about you and your film 20% of the time in social media – MAX!

Connect with organizations that are connected with the audience of your film.

4. The filmmaking teams resources. How much money and/or time is available?

To help solve the time issue – I recommend bringing in a PMD [Producer of Marketing and Distribution] to help with the distribution and marketing of the film.

Bring the PMD on as early as possible (see first sentence above).

Budget for distribution and marketing – expect it will be 50/50 – eg 50% on production and 50% on distribution and marketing. You may be one of the lucky ones to have a great distributor come along and write you a check and take it “off your hands” – but the % aren’t that great these days.

Think strategically about how you are going to release your film that will achieve your goals and connect with your audience – in terms of the products that you can create:

1. Strive to make your Live Event/Theatrical screenings unique – and event worthy – what will motivate people to come out for your film?

2. Create unique merchandise for your film. People still like to buy things – just often not DVDs in ugly cases anymore.

3. Think strategically about how you will release your digital rights – including TV/Cable and how they fit into the overall plan.

 

Sheri’s final thoughts:

I want to put the emphasis on the audience identification. Like Jon has said, this isn’t about making a film cater to an audience, this is about identifying and connecting with the audience that already exists for YOUR story. When you are still thinking through the idea of the film, make yourself concentrate on who would love to hear this story, what makes it compelling, describe the ideal audience member in detail, down to what they would wear when they come to see the film. If they are too vague to you, they will continue to be too vague to reach.

Trying to reach a vague audience takes a lot of money because you need to saturate a market with messages (usually through advertising placement) in hopes of reaching enough people that are interested and will buy. This is why you hear Hollywood marketers lament that marketing costs have skyrocketed. They don’t make films to reach a highly defined audience. They hope to attract EVERYONE to their films and attracting everyone is very expensive.

Allow for a very tight audience core to start. I hear many filmmakers say “well, I don’t want my story to only reach a ?? audience, I want it to reach bigger” which is a fine aspiration, but if you can’t catch fire with a small group, somewhere, how will it ever grow bigger? You should have a strong base to start with, really saturate that base, and then push outward.

Also, if you aren’t yet using social media for your personal use, get on it. This isn’t a fad or something that will just go away. It is how consumers find information now. They may see advertising, but they research information online before making decisions. In order to use it effectively for your film, you have to understand it from a personal perspective. I would distrust anyone selling those services who doesn’t have a strong personal presence in social media themselves as well and it is very easy to check on that, just Google their names and see what comes up. Expertise has to derive from the practical, not the theoretical and with no barrier to entry involved with social media activity, there is no reason why someone who says they are proficient wouldn’t show up as being personally very active online.

You can check out the whole discussion thread on the D Word site and thanks to Doug Block for inviting us!

We will have our second book launch party, in Los Angeles this time, on October 28 at the UCLA Library directly following the popular and FREE DIY Days LA. We will send out invitations to all of our email list so if you are in LA and wish to attend, please RSVP. As always, you can  follow us on Facebook where we post regularly and read our posts on Twitter under the hashtag #syfnotsys.

 

 

 

 

 

Book excerpt on serving niche audiences for films

If you have ever heard any of the authors speak in person or via media outlets, you know that we talk a lot about the need to identify and connect with niche audiences for your film. The question is, how to do that without limiting the potential for your film to reach the wider audience circle beyond that niche?

In the book, we included a chapter on how to find niche audiences. One documentary film in particular, For the Bible Tells Me So, went on to reach well beyond the LGBT audience it might have been most logical to target; the “choir” for the film.  Here’s an excerpt that speaks to how filmmaker Daniel Karslake and his distributor, First Run Features, accomplished this.

"For the Bible Tells Me So" was distributed by First Run Features

“Of course, no matter how powerful a subject a documentary tackles – and no matter how hungry an audience might be for the message—it is just a tree falling in the forest until it finds a platform to reach its audience. As is so often the case with successful documentaries, For the Bible Tells Me So had its first big break when it was accepted into the documentary competition at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Karslake echoed a sentiment expressed by many filmmakers:

We had some interested parties before, but once we were chosen as one of the 16 competition documentaries at Sundance everything changed. Suddenly every festival and every distributor contacted us and wanted to see the film. There was definitely a “Sundance effect.”

To maximize this “Sundance effect,” Karslake signed on high profile sales agents/film strategists Cinetic Media for the Festival, where the film was sold to Sundance Channel for U.S. TV and most importantly, to First Run Features for all other North American rights.

While the terms of the deal were not disclosed, it is what happened next that makes For the Bible such an inspirational story of niche distribution. At first, both Cinetic and First Run (as well as filmmaker Karslake) were very wary of the gay niche, believing that the film should not be pigeonholed as a gay film for gay audiences, but rather for the uninitiated, largely straight people of faith in the so called “red states.” People who, as Karslake explains, “understood the teachings of Christ, but couldn’t square that message with the Church’s attitudes towards gay people.” As such, the film spent the first few months of its post-Sundance life playing the larger “nongay” international and doc festivals, winning awards at festivals such as Full Frame and the Audience Award for “Best Documentary”at Seattle International.

For the Bible eschewed the spring LGBT festival circuit, and even chose to skip San Francisco’s Frameline—well known as the world’s oldest and largest gay and lesbian film festival. For reasons unknown to Karslake, however, First Run Features chose to accept the film’s first queer booking at Outfest Los Angeles, a festival held in early summer and which is closely watched by LGBT Industry folks.

“I thought gay people would probably hate it,” said Karslake, citing general hostility toward religious issues in the Community, supported by his earliest experiences with “In The Life” [a TV show that was Karslake’s day job]. However, For the Bible would go on to win the Audience Award at Outfest, a major validation that would pave the way for launching the film and which would lead to startling results.

Following the cue from earlier awards as well as Outfest, For the Bible rocketed through both the summer/early fall international festivals and now also the LGBT circuit, building toward theatrical release in October. Along with the Festival accolades, another key aspect of niche buzz marketing kicked in during this period—namely a tremendous surge in LGBT groups outreaching to their memberships to spread the word about the film.

Most notable was the nationwide support of the gay civil rights organization Human Rights Campaign (HRC), well known as the best-funded, best politically connected of the gay political groups,with nearly a million people on its mailing lists. Prior to Sundance, Karslake had shown a six-minute trailer at HRC’s National Convention, and the response and support for the movie was immediate and powerful.

Mobilizing both its resources and its chapters, HRC encouraged its members to buy tickets for members for the theatrical opening weekend bookings, just to help make sure the initial release numbers were strong. Also prior to Sundance, Karslake showed the same six minutes at the National Convention of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), gaining support from its nearly 200,000 membership base.

First Run opened the film in New York City’s Quad Theater in early October to a strong result, nearly $10,000 in the first weekend. Capitalizing quickly, First Run moved wider to the Landmark Theatres of Los Angeles, Palm Springs, San Diego, San Francisco, Berkeley, Philly, Boston, Portland, and Minneapolis—all typical big cities on the art-house circuit that include large gay populations. Within a week the film was in St. Louis, Springfield (MO), Austin, Dallas, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Denver, Santa Fe, Orlando,and New Orleans…and then Charlotte, Tempe, Hartford, Fargo, Tulsa, etc.

Choosing both full-week runs and then smaller, limited engagements at regional independent theaters, First Run was able to support the release for nearly six months, finally ending sometime in March 2008 with a gross of around $309,000. Karslake estimates that the film had some sort of theatrical presence in approximately120 markets, a real eye-opener for a doc distributed by a small indie company.

Shortly into the theatrical run is when the real “miracle” started to happen. In addition to continuing to travel the film both theatrically and along the festival circuit, First Run set up a section of  its website to invite community screenings of the film. In earlyNovember 2007, the first churches starting calling and booking the film for local, church-based screenings. After churches, it spread to university religion departments, sociology departments, religious conventions, etc. From November 2007 until January 2009, scarcely a calendar day went by that the film was not playing in several cities at once, often in multiple churches, festivals, and theatrical venues all at the same time.

In total, from the time that First Run starting posting the venues on its website soon after Outfest, the film recorded more than 600 engagements around the country, mostly in small and mid-sized towns, and very often in the heart of the Bible Belt.”

To find out how all of these screenings translated into DVD sales, download or buy the printed edition of Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul on our website.

We will have our second book launch party, in Los Angeles this time, on October 28 at the UCLA Library directly following the popular and FREE DIY Days LA. We will send out invitations to all of our email list so if you are in LA and wish to attend, please RSVP. As always, you can  follow us on Facebook where we post regularly and read our posts on Twitter under the hashtag #syfnotsys.

 

 

Book excerpt covering film release strategy

Co authors Jon Reiss and Sheri Candler are answering questions this week on the D Word site for documentary filmmakers. One question usually comes up regarding distribution strategy, particularly release strategies. In the book, Jon covers the importance of planning release timing so that each “window” dovetails into the next, maximizing revenue when you have the greatest amount of attention instead of stretching the release (and your resources) over a long length of time. Here is an excerpt from the case study documentary Ride the Divide.

TIMING

FESTIVAL LAUNCH

Hunter and Mike wanted the credibility that a film festival offers, so when they didn’t get into Sundance or SXSW they decided to premiere at The Vail Film Festival, which made sense both because of their audience and because of their prior relationship with the event.

Hunter: We knew after that we wouldn’t spend much time screening in film festivals, because quite honestly, we could build audiences just as easily and capitalize on the experiences versus letting the film festivals take all of the money from the shows that they screened.

They started selling DVDs and conducting their live events one and a half months after their premiere at the Vail Film Festival.

PREMIERE DATE

If there are special days, weeks, months or seasons in which your audience is particularly primed to see your film, then you should take advantage of that. For Ride the Divide, they knew they wanted to get the film out when cyclists were getting excited about riding again—in the spring.

Mike: I think it was imperative that we released the film in the spring, as cyclists are coming out of the winter doldrums and are eager to get back on a bike and experience that particular weather and that particular season, especially going into theatrical, because cyclists are used to getting together with their cycling buddies and their cycling clubs and gathering together and going for rides and beer. So that theatrical event tie-in, yeah, was absolutely perfect for the season we released.

LIVE EVENTS

In keeping with their intelligent audience engagement strategy, Hunter and Mike wanted to utilize more components than a traditional theatrical release for their film; they wanted to incorporate all forms of public exhibition—traditional or not. To date, Ride the Divide has had 135 screening engagements! Hunter and Mike booked 25 of those screenings (all in conventional theaters) and then their audience and the promoter who took the film and booked engagements for them handled the rest. In my book, that’s a 135 city theatrical release.

Mike: Pretty much everything we did was in a conventional theater, more of an indie-type theater. Definitely, we weren’t hitting the AMCs or anything like that, but we were able to put together, probably 90% of the theaters we did. We worked out a 50/50 split, which took any risk off us. We broke it up into legs, so we would put together a Denver-Salt Lake City-Boise-Portland-Seattle sort of show, that would take us on the road for 9 or 10 days. Then we would come back and do some business work and some more marketing. I think to be out there for a full 40 or 50 days is tough, it’s difficult, it’s going to wear you down, and it’s taking you away from perpetuating the other aspects that you should also be concentrating on—marketing and engaging your audience.

Mike and Hunter are working on a 40 city tour with their new film, The Path, but this time their main sponsor is doing PR/marketing and stepping up as a true partner in the release.

Here is some of what they found:

THE PARTNERSHIPS PAID OFF

For them it was key to have national organizations to promote awareness, but also, more importantly, to have the support of local groups and commercial entities (bike shops, etc.). In Dallas, TX for instance, Villy Customs brought bikes to the screenings to enhance the experience. They also had bike valets at several locations. This type of grassroots support ensured the local screenings of Ride the Divide were always well-attended.

CREATE AN EVENT

As much as they could, Hunter and Mike created a sense of an event around their film. In addition to bike themed events, they also enlisted musicians. One of the bigger risks they took was to four wall (in which a filmmaker rents the “four walls” of the theater) their premiere at the Boulder Theater (which wouldn’t give them a percentage deal), for their opening night on May 22, 2010. I’m not usually in favor of four walls for most films, but at times it can make sense and even turn a profit. Hunter and Mike were nervous about pulling the trigger on this event because of the nut ($4,500), but they realized that this was the best-case scenario for their premiere—Boulder being not only a Rocky Mountain community, but also a strong bike community.

Hunter and Mike made the premiere a premium event by providing a film and musical experience, including a performance by Gregory Alan Isakov, who also appears on the film’s soundtrack. It paid off for them. They charged $18 per ticket and with 600 people in attendance, they grossed $10,800 in one night. They paid $3,000 to rent the theater plus $1,500 for the musician fees and other costs. That’s a $6300 theatrical profit for one night (not including the sweat equity to arrange and market the show). They did other event screenings with another Ride the Divide soundtrack musician, Dominique Fraissard.

PROGRAM ON ALTERNATIVE NIGHTS

Echoing the experience of Todd Sklar and his Range Life tours, Hunter and Mike found that the best nights to screen were Wednesday and Thursday, with Monday and Tuesday being fine as well. Most of their screenings were 1-3 nights, except in Denver where the film ran for 3 weeks. They strongly recommend staying away from Friday and Saturday nights because there is too much competition and Sundays “are the worst.” Note: Saturdays did work well for bike-event themed screenings when a group ride or bike shop got behind the screening.

To read about moving into digital and DVD release, buy the digital or printed copy of the book on our website or download the free pdf.

We will have our second book launch party, in Los Angeles this time, on October 28 at the UCLA Library directly following the popular and FREE DIY Days LA. We will send out invitations to all of our email list so if you are in LA and wish to attend, please RSVP. As always, you can  follow us on Facebook where we post regularly and read our posts on Twitter under the hashtag #syfnotsys.

8 tips on on planning, negotiating deals and releasing your film digitally

Co author Orly Ravid is our resident expert on negotiating digital distribution deals and it is something that the organization she co founded, The Film Collaborative, helps filmmakers navigate often. Here are her tips on planning, negotiating deals and releasing your film digitally.

1.  CARVE OUT DIY DIGITAL:

Distributors and Foreign sales companies alike often want ALL RIGHTS and including ALL DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION RIGHTS.

What to watch out for overall is not the purview of these tips, however this is:  No matter what, at least CARVE OUT the ability to do DIY Digital Distribution yourself with services such as: EggUp, Distrify , Dynamo Player, and/or TopSpin Media , on your own site, on your Facebook page, and also directly to platforms.  Several of our case studies employed or will now employ these options even when sometimes also engaging in traditional distribution (e.g. Adventures of Power, Violet Tendencies, American: The Bill Hicks Story to name few). Platforms and services can almost always Geo-Filter thereby eliminating conflict with any territories where the film has been sold to a traditional distributor and often times a distributor will not mind that a filmmaker sells directly to his/her fans as well in any case. ADDITIONALLY, since I wrote this blog Prescreen, www.Prescreen.com launched its platform and we used it and so far it seems like really a great way  to boost the profile of a film and jumpstart one’s digital distribution.  It worked well for How to Start Your Own Country and we are trying other films now too.

2.   PLATFORMS ≠ AGGREGATORS ≠ DISTRIBUTORS:

Platforms are places people go to watch or buy films.

Aggregators are conduits between filmmakers/distributors and platforms. Aggregators usually focus more on converting files for and supplying metadata to platforms and that’s about it.  Marketing is rarely a strong suit or focus for them but it should be for a distributor, otherwise what’s the point? Aggregators usually don’t need rights for a long term and only take limited rights they need to do the job.

Distributors usually take more rights for longer terms.  Sometimes distributors are DIRECT to PLATFORMS and sometimes they go through AGGREGATORS.

It makes a difference because FEES are taken out every time there is a middleman.  Filmmakers should want to know the FEE that the PLATFORM is taking (because it’s not always the same for all content providers though usually it is other than for Cable VOD, for example) and  know if a distributor is direct with platforms or goes through an aggregator.  Also, filmmakers should have an understanding what each middleman is doing to justify the fee.  On the aggregator/distributor side, we think 15% is a better fee than 50%, so have an understanding of what services are included in the fee. If a distributor is not devoting any time or money to marketing and simply dumping films onto platforms, then one should be aware of that. Ask for a description in writing of what activities will be performed. Companies such as New Video (worked on our case studies Bass Ackwards, Note by Note and Best and the Brightest) function well as both a distributor and an aggregator.

3. THINK OF DIGITAL PLATFORMS AS STORES

A film should try to be available everywhere however sometimes that is too costly or not possible and when that is the case one should prioritize according to where the film’s audience consumes media. Think of digital platforms as retail stores.

Back in the DVD days (which are almost gone), one would want a DVD of an indie film in big chains such as Blockbuster and Hollywood Video but especially a cool, award winning indie would do well in a 20/20 or Kim’s Video store because those outlets were targeting a core audience. With digital, it’s the same.

While many filmmakers want to see their films on Cable VOD, some films just don’t work well there. Some films make most of their money via Netflix these days and won’t do a lick on business on Comcast.  Other films do well on iTunes and some die there whereas they might actually bring in some business via Hulu or SNAG. Docs are different from narrative and niches vary.

Know your film, its audience’s habits and resolve a digital strategy that makes sense. If money or access is an issue, then be strategic in picking your “stores” and make your film available where it’s most likely to perform. It may not be in Walmart’s digital store or Best Buy’s. Above all, if you dear filmmaker have a community around you (followers, a brand), your site(s) and networks may be your best platform stores of all.  Though there is something to be said for viewing habits, so I do recommend always picking at least a couple other key digital storefronts that are known and trusted by your audience.

4. CABLE VOD LISTINGS

By now many of you may have heard that it’s hard to get films marketed well on Cable VOD platforms. Often the metadata either isn’t entered or entered incorrectly and it’s nearly impossible to fix after it goes live. Hence, oversee the metatags submitted for your film and check immediately upon release. Also, since genre/category folders and trailer promotion are not always an option for every film, it is the case that films with names starting in early letters of the alphabet (A-G) or numbers can perform better. Then again, there’s a glut of folks trying that now so the cable operators are getting wise to this and not falling for it. All the more reason to focus on marketing, marketing, marketing your title, so audiences are looking for it and not just stumbling upon your film in the VOD menu. There are only going to be more films to choose from in the future, not fewer.

5. ART must work SMALL

Filmmakers, if there is one thing I must impart to you once and for all it’s this:  TAKE GOOD PHOTOGRAPHY!!!  Take it when making your film.

Remember, most marketing imagery if not all for digital distribution (which will be all of “home entertainment”) must work SMALL so create key art and publicity images that also work well small and in concert with the rest of your campaign. Look at your key art as a thumbnail image and make sure it is still clearly identifiable.

6. KNOW YOUR DIGITAL DISTRO GOALS

This harkens back to Jon Reiss’ points. I have seen distribution plans wasted because a vision for the film’s path was not resolved in time to actualize it properly.

If your film is ripe for NGO or corporate sponsorship and you want to try that, you will need loads of lead time (6 months at least!) and a clear distribution plan to present to potential sponsors (who will always need to know that before agreeing).  If making money is a top concern, then know how YOUR FILM’s release is mostly likely to do that and plan accordingly. It may be by collapsing windows or it may be by expanding them. All films are different and that’s why our case study book has different examples to look at.

American: The Bill Hicks Story for example did Day & Date Theatrical/VOD with Variance & Gravitas.  That strategy can increase revenues, but is not for every film so know what sort of release makes sense for the film before starting so you don’t inadvertently lose out on options. With Prescreen now an option, if interested, one needs to carve out that window before EST (electronic sell through) / DTO (digital download to own) and streaming digital rights are sold. TFC is doing this with the film HOW TO START YOUR OWN COUNTRY for example. If showing the industry that your film is on iTunes matters to you for professional reasons more than financial then know that is your motivator but also understand that getting a film onto iTunes does not automatically lead to transactions, marketing does.

7. TIMING IS EVERYTHING

Digital distribution often has to be done in a certain order if accessing Cable VOD is part of your plan. That is not the only reason to consider an order and an order is not always needed, but it can be a consideration.  Sometimes Cable VOD is not an option for a film (films often need a strong theatrical run before they can access Cable VOD) and, in this case, the order of digital is more flexible and one can be creative or experiment with timing and different types of digital. However, Cable VOD’s percentage share of digital distribution revenues is still around 70% (it used to be nearer to 80%) so if it’s an option for your film, it’s worth doing, at least for now.

It is very often the case that if your film is in the digital distribution window before Cable VOD (on Netflix for example), that will eliminate or at least dramatically diminish the potential that Cable MSO’s (Multi System Operators) will take the film or even that an intermediate aggregator will accept it.  There is more flexibility with transactional EST (electronic sell through) / DTO (download to own) / DTR (download to rent) services such as iTunes but much less flexibility with YouTube (even a rental channel) or subscription or ad-supported services such as Netflix (subscription) or Hulu (which is both).

Films that opted to be part of the YouTube/Sundance rental channel initiative (such as Children of Invention) could not get onto Cable VOD after. The Film Collaborative has to hold off on putting films in its YouTube Rental Channel if cable VOD is part of the plan.  Of course, there are exceptions to every rule due to relationships or a film proving itself in the marketplace, but better to plan ahead than be disappointed.

Companies such as Gravitas are also programmers for some of the MSOs so they have greater access to VOD, but they too discourage YouTube rental channel distribution before the Cable VOD window and they do Netflix SVOD (Subscription Video on Demand) distribution after. In general, films are often released on transactional platforms first and ad-supported last with Netflix being in the middle unless it’s delayed because of a TV deal for example. This is not always the case and some distributors have experienced that one platform can drive sales on another but in my opinion it depends on the film and habits of its audience.  You should know that Broadcasters such as Showtime will pay more if you do your Netflix SVOD after their window rather than before.

The question you have to resolve is what value does each option have and what is the best order for your film given your resources.

This tip was written for the Sundance Artists Services initiative: http://bit.ly/ArTiSts

8. THE DEVIL IS IN THE DEFINITIONS

This tip was also written for the Sundance Artists Services initiative (http://www.sellingyourfilm.com/blog/2011/08/25/the-devil-is-in-the-definition-know-what-vod-means/).

There is no standard yet for definitions of digital rights. IFTA (formerly known as AFMA) has its rights definitions and for that organization’s signatories there is therefore a standard. But many distributors use their own contracts with a range of definitions that are not uniform. When analyzing distribution options, be aware that terms such as VOD can mean different things to different people and include more or fewer distribution rights and govern more or fewer platforms.

Consider the term “VOD”. In some contracts, it’s not explicitly defined and hence can mean anything and everything. IFTA is clear to categorize it as a PayPerView Right (Demand View Right) and limit it to: “transmission by means of encoded signal for television reception in homes and similar living spaces where a charge is made to the viewer for the rights to use a decoding device to view the Motion Picture at a time selected by the viewer for each viewing”.

However in some contracts, it’s defined as “Video-on-Demand Rights,” meaning a function or service distributed and/or made available to a viewer by any and all means of transmission, telecommunication, and/or network system(s) whether now known or hereafter devised (including, without limitation, television, cable, satellite, wire, fiber, radio communication signal, internet, intranet, or other means of electronic delivery and whether employing analogue and/or digital technologies and whether encrypted or encoded) whereby the viewer is using information storage, retrieval and management techniques capable of accessing, selecting, downloading (whether temporarily or permanently) and viewing programming whether on a per program/movie basis or as a package of programs/movies) at a time selected by the viewer, in his/her discretion whether or not the transmission is scheduled by the operator(s)/provider(s), and whether or not a fee is paid by the viewer for such function/service to view on the screen of a television receiver, computer, handheld device or other receiving device (fixed or mobile) of any type whether now known or hereafter devised. Video-on-Demand includes without limitation Near VOD (“NVOD”,) Subscription Video-on-Demand (“SVOD”,) “Download to burn”, “Download to Own”, “Electronic Sell Through” and “Electronic Rental,” for example.  This example includes everything and your kitchen sink.

One has to ask if a definition of VOD or another type of digital right includes “SVOD” (Subscription Video on Demand) and includes subscription services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus. Why does this matter? Well if the fee to the distributor and/or to you is the same either way then it may not matter. If there’s a difference in fees depending on the nature of distribution, then it will.  Recently an issue in a deal came up with respect to distinguishing ad-supported specifically from general “free-streaming”.  Is ad-supported governed by a “free-streaming” rights reference?  Why wonder, Just spell it all out; better to be safe than _____.

Another example, if a contract notes a distributor has purchased “VOD Rights” but does not define them, or defines them broadly, then do they have mobile device distribution rights as well? The words “Video-on-Demand” sometimes are used only to refer to Cable Video on Demand and other times much more generally. In a “TV Everywhere” (and hence film everywhere) multi-platform all-device playable universe, the content creator needs to know.

The devil is in the definition which you must read carefully BEFORE you sign on the dotted line.  Know what you want for and can do for your film in terms of distribution and carve it up and spell it out.

The free period for all digital platform downloads has ended, but you can still get the book at a reasonable price. Digital copies, apart from the forever free pdf version, are $4.99 from Amazon Kindle and Apple iTunes.  You can also get ePub and .mobi files for any reading device and the printed edition from our site. The printed copy is $9.99 plus shipping on our site only.

We will have our second book launch party, in Los Angeles this time, on October 28 at the UCLA Library directly following the popular and FREE DIY Days LA. We will send out invitations to all of our email list so if you are in LA and wish to attend, please RSVP. As always, you can  follow us on Facebook where we post regularly and read our posts on Twitter under the hashtag #syfnotsys.